To better understand the never-ending policy struggles between the president and Congress, consider the uniquely different perspectives that both bring to the legislative process.
By virtue of his national office, a president is supposed to rise above the parochial concerns that often shape the legislation that reaches his desk. He must look to whether proposed laws serve the national interest, as seen from the 30,000-foot perspective. Members of Congress, in contrast, "are the representatives only of distinct parts … and sometimes of little more than sectional or local interests." While they should never lose sight of national concerns, the Founding Fathers nevertheless expected lawmakers to push aggressively on behalf of local interests and constituencies.
That tension between national and parochial interests has manifested itself with a vengeance in a quiet, but potentially dramatic, internal debate now raging within the White House and on Capitol Hill over how best to handle the thousands of special-interest spending provisions -- known as "earmarks" -- which lawmakers stuffed into the gargantuan, end-of-the-year omnibus spending bill.
President Bush recently signed this $554.7 billion monster into law, but expressed profound reservations over the rampant earmarking in it. Despite repeated promises by lawmakers to kick their habit, nothing much changed over the last year. Altogether, in 2007 Congress approved over 11,900 earmarks, many for indefensible purposes.
The list is long and embarrassing but, to choose one at random, how about Rep. David Hobson's (R-Ohio) allocation of $800,000 for a new Speedway SuperAmerica gas station, convenience store and pizza parlor on U.S. Route 42 in Wilberforce, Ohio (population: 2,000)?
This infusion of taxpayer support, a fawning report in a local paper informs us, addresses a "vitally important" need in a community "with hundreds of college students and no pizza delivery or nearby fast food options." The president of the nearby university defended the project, noting that "students will no longer have the fright of driving with their gas light on E …"
Oh, the horror. The horror.
Little wonder that earmarks inspire widespread anger. One recent poll found that 67% of Americans oppose these special-interest provisions. Only 23% approve.
Yet lawmakers keep sneaking them in. "Over 90 percent of earmarks," Bush complained a year ago, "never make it to the floor of the House and Senate -- they are dropped into committee reports that are not even part of the bill that arrives on my desk. You didn't vote them into law. I didn't sign them into law. Yet, they're treated as if they have the force of law."
Bush faces what students of President Ronald Reagan's presidency might call a "PATCO" moment. PATCO, you'll remember, was the air traffic controllers' union that flouted the law banning strikes by government unions by declaring an illegal walkout during Reagan's first year in office. Unlike his predecessors (who tolerated illegal strikes by government unions such as the Postal Service), Reagan stood up to the lawbreakers and promptly fired all 13,000 controllers. Those who didn't return within 48 hours were permanently banned from federal service.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom of the day, our aviation system didn't grind to a screeching halt. Replacements were quickly trained and hired. Most importantly, Reagan set a precedent for decisiveness and principled action that paid dividends throughout his two terms in office.
Now, conservatives are urging Bush to adopt a similarly principled stand and sign an executive order directing federal officials to pay no heed to earmarks that appear magically in conference reports or are exceedingly vague. They argue that Bush, re-elected in 2004 with over 62 million votes, should seize the principled high ground befitting our national chief executive and do what he can to end this out-of-control practice.
It is precisely the role our Founding Fathers envisioned for the president.
Lawmakers, of course, represent narrower constituencies -- Rep. Hobson, for example, was re-elected in 2006 with only 138,000 votes; legendary porker Sen. Ted Stevens won his statewide election with the support of a mere 179,000 Alaskans. Just how much so is jarringly evident in Hobson's pathetic assessment of his 18-year congressional career. "I'm probably more proud of this earmark," he said of the SuperAmerica gas station largesse, "and what it will do in the future than anything I've ever done."
When veteran lawmakers are reduced to uttering such inanities, it's high time to stop the madness.
Michael Franc is vice president of government relations for The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).
First appeared in Human Events